Lewis is steeped in both history and mystery, going back over 8,000 years since man is believed to have first inhabited the island.
This is a wonderful and awe-inspiring stone monument, undoubtedly the most famous prehistoric site in Scotland. Pottery remains suggest these ancient stones were erected around 3000BC but the reason for their erection is still in debate. The overall layout of the monuments forms the shape of a distorted Celtic cross with 13 primary stones forming a circle in the middle. The most widely held opinion is that this alignment of the stones was used to mark significant points in the lunar cycle, suggesting the stones formed some sort of calendar system. Critics of this theory argue however that any such alignments are likely to exist purely by chance. The discovery of human remains supports the theory of the stones marking a burial chamber, but this was a later addition to the site and is thought to have been modified a number of times.
The Visitor Centre houses an interesting ‘Story of the Stones’ exhibition as well as a gift shop and a coffee shop. There are several other, lesser known but still impressive, stone circles in the Callanish area.
At 6 metres high, the Trussel Stone is the largest single standing stone in Scotland.
When island society moved into the Iron Age, the buildings became larger and more prominent, culminating in the brochs (hill forts) which were circular, dry-stone buildings belonging to the local chieftains. Constructed mainly on the coastal fringes, it is thought they were built from about 250 BC to 500 AD to defend themselves from other Celtic groups. As well as housing an extended family with a space for animals at ground level, they would also have served as a visible statement of power and status.
The broch at Dun Carloway, overlooking Loch Roag on the west coast, is the finest remaining example. Amazingly well preserved and set in a beautiful spot, it is well worth a visit. The Visitor Centre, built largely underground, includes an exhibition giving a sense of what life in the broch might have been like.
Following the Scandinavian invasion, the style of the buildings began to change their form from being round to rectangular. Shawbost’s renovated Mill and Kiln are the finest remaining examples on the island. The workings of the kiln are not entirely understood but it was here where the grain was dried before it was milled to make flour. The mill would have been powered by water from the burn from the nearby Loch Roinavat, turning the paddles which in turn caused the millstone to turn and grind the grain. The mill remained active until the 1930s and although not the most well known visitor attraction on Lewis, it provides a fascinating insight into a way of life which was once very common on this island.
From the end of the 1800s, Lewis saw the introduction of more modern housing enabling people and animals to live in separate buildings. These new cottages became known as ‘white houses’, which in turn led to the more traditional dwellings taking on the name of ‘blackhouses’.
Settlement in the blackhouse village of Gearrannan has been traced back well over 300 years. Throughout that time, life in the village changed very slowly with oil lamps still being used up until the 1950s and washing being laundered in the lochs up until the 1960s, when piped water finally came to the village. The village even relied on its own cow for daily milk until 1965 when a milk delivery started. By the 1970s those who were able to leave had left for easier and more modern accommodation, leaving only five villagers in the blackhouses. In 1974 these last remaining occupants finally moved from the blackhouses to modern houses and the village began to degenerate into ghostly ruins.
More than a decade later, a local community trust was formed in order to restore the village and to breathe life back into what was once a vibrant community. Using traditional methods of drystone masonry and thatched roofing, the once derelict properties have been painstakingly restored to recreate authentic village life, with the discreet integration of modern facilities. Visitors can gain an insight into island life in the mid 1900s through a visit to the museum in the centre of the village, which is home to a traditional living room and bedroom one end and Harris Tweed weaving demonstrations at the other. The Blackhouse Museum in the village of Arnol is also well worth a visit.
The Lewis Chessmen are the finest early chess pieces in the world, believed to have been carved in Norway between AD 1150-1200. At this time, Lewis was part of the Kingdom of Norway and it is thought that at some point they were buried for safe keeping en route to be traded in Ireland. It wasn’t until 1831 that a small drystone chamber was discovered in the sand dunes of Uig Bay and lying inside were 93 beautiful chess pieces. There are many unconfirmed stories about how they were found, ranging from a local man discovering them while chasing a cow, to dramatic stories involving death-bed confessions of murder and theft from a seaman who was observed jumping ship.
Housed today in the British Museum and also in the National Museum of Scotland, they consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales’ teeth in the forns of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. Uig Lodge also has its own replica set for you to enjoy!
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